US, China And Iran: A Balancing Act – Analysis


By Kimberley Anne Nazareth*

What impact will the nuclear agreement signed between Iran and P5+1 countries have on US-China and Iran-China relations? The implications for future relations between the US and Iran as well as US and West Asia are complex. To add to this, what is the role of China in this scenario?

The US, China and Iran are considered powerful powers that are vying for greater influence not only with respect to their region, but to expand their influence beyond it. This has created complications not only for them but neighbouring States as well. The US is apprehensive of China’s rise and its close ties with Iran and with West Asia. China on the other had has to weigh its interests in favouring either the US or Iran.

Striking a Balance

The success of President Obama’s policy of engaging with Iran hinged on getting the Iranian leadership as well as the international community on board. The former only agreed with the election of Hasan Rouhani in 2013 and the latter took the form of P5+1. The Iranian made matters difficult especially when it came to IAEA inspections. The US found it equally difficult at first to get China, Russia and India on board on the issue of imposing sanctions on Iran. China’s strategic relations with Iran could have been jeopardised by the oil embargo and the sanctions. However, over a period of time and with international pressure especially from the US, China yielded. The US sanctioned Chinese companies that traded with Iran which was the final step that forced the Chinese to yield. This delayed and forced response added to Sino-US tensions.

Though Beijing has cooperated with the US and other P5 countries in the negotiations with Iran, the western powers are still doubtful of Beijing’s intentions. Although the deal has been accomplished, to what extent it will be a success remains to be seen.


The three are mutually dependent on each other in dealing with international issues including nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The US and China see eye-to-eye on monitoring and inspections of Iran’s declared and possibly undeclared nuclear activities. The Chinese and US negotiators are comfortable with any nuclear deal that pushes back Iran’s ability to build a bomb. Iran and China as well as the US are deeply invested in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and in Afghanistan. These two problems have the capability of creating further regional imbalances that will affect all. The Chinese are caught in the middle, with Iran on one side and the US on the other. Some favour maintaining close relations with the Iran, partly based on their belief that Iran will view China’s rise as non-threatening and will support it. However this could create a backlash for Sino-US relations.

The three powers – the US, Iran and China – have to therefore seek an optimum balance. The US for instance will never, at least in the near future, admit to getting help from Iran in their fight against the IS, even though it could be a point of convergence. However, what would the US have to forgo as part of the partnership?

Future Balance

In the future, balancing is not going to be easy for either party. The close relationship between Tehran and Beijing should not interfere in the ‘Cold War’ between Beijing and Washington and spill out into West Asia. There is a possibility of this happening as the standing power of Tehran increases in the Persian Gulf. The US has to tread carefully with Iran as it could side-line its allies in West Asia, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. For Iran, balancing may not be as much of a problem as they are the major party that the other is trying to balance with. The stakes are high for Obama, especially given his support for the deal with Iran, which has detractors both domestically and internationally. China appears to be in a better position. If things go awry, Iran, on the other hand, will incur the wrath of the US, hostile Gulf countries and Israel.

* Kimberley Anne Nazareth
PhD Scholar, School of International Studies, JNU


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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